The All Access Bookclub: The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

The All Access Bookclub: The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

By Emma Sarconi

Cover of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society

Beginning in January 2024, the Princeton Public Library and Special Collections at Princeton University Library launched a book club together for the first time. Called “All Access,” every six weeks, the club reads a book chosen by Princeton Public Library staff. When it comes time to discuss, the group convenes in Special Collections at Firestone Library. Beginning with a half-hour led by Reference and Outreach specialist Emma Sarconi, everyone has the opportunity to browse and view objects selected from Princeton’s collection that reflect the content, themes and history of that month’s pick. Then, public library staff lead the group in conversation.

February’s book was The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by the aunt and niece team Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows. Published in 2008 and written in the epistolatory style (ie: entirely in letters), the book follows London-based writer Juliet Ashton and the friends she makes on the island of Guernsey in the wake of the Second World War. Themes include the power of literature, the importance of community, the trauma of Nazi occupation, the terror of war, and the resilience of the human spirit.

Choosing items to reflect these themes was difficult! The book was incredibly rich–we could have shown items related to Guernsey, literary societies, letter writing, and wartime, not to mention all the books referenced throughout the book. Instead of going in a single direction, a sampling was selected. Here’s the final list:

On the Island of Guernsey:

Map of the Island of Guernsey, 1880

On World War II in Britain:

  • Shelter-sketch-book / Henry Moore (2004-0022F Oversize)  — “In 1940, during the Blitz, when London was suffering constant air-raids, the sculptor Henry Moore became fascinated by the sight of people sheltering overnight in Underground railway stations. Over the next few months he filled two sketchbooks with drawings which provide a moving record of life in wartime London.” (from the book)

Literary Societies 

  • Edith Sitwell Papers (C0846)  — Edith Sitwell was an English poet and eccentric. The correspondents include many friends, publishers, literary and business associates, family members and admirers. Various subjects discussed in the letters include family, social, and business news, and literary topics; and there are many get well wishes for Sitwell during an illness and after an accident. Some of the correspondents are Sylvia Beach, Bryher, Cyril Connolly, George Cukor, David Higham Associates, Alec Guinness, David Horner, John Lehmann, Ned O’Gorman, William Plomer, Georgia, Osbert,and Sacheverell Sitwell, Stephen Spender, Felix Topolski, and Beryl de Zoete.
  • Collected Correspondence of Elizabeth Montagu (C0078) — Montagu is most famous for her “bluestockings parties,” gatherings of literary figures and intellectual socialites at her London home at which drinking and card games were banned in favor of witty discussion of literature, philosophy, and other topics. Often called the “queen of the bluestockings,” Montagu and her friend Elizabeth Vesey organized these meetings. Montagu also pursued her own writing, including an appreciated and acclaimed essay on Shakespeare, displaying her nationalism and belief in his genius and condemning the less positive evaluations of contemporary critics such as Samuel Johnson and Voltaire.

Charles Lamb (Lamb is referenced repeatedly throughout the novel)

  • Essays of Elia / by Charles Lamb ; illustrated by R. Swain Gifford and others (2013-0066Q)
  • Charles Lamb Collection (C0173) / Original Autograph Manuscript of poem “To Louisa Martin.” (Box 1, Folder 1)  
Charles Lamb
Handwritten letter
Essays of Elia

Books from the Book (courtesy of the Random House website)

  • Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen (19th-12 RHT) — A first edition. Isola plans on speaking about it at a meeting but her goat eats her notes
  • Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte (Brontes 105) — A first edition. Juliet writes a book on the life of Emily Bronte and it’s noted as one of Isola’s favorite books. Isola talks about Anne and Charlotte Bronte as well but doesn’t mention specific titles.
  • Past and Present by Thomas Carlyle (3667.371.11) — The first book that Will Thisbee enjoys helps him “get a grip on Faith.”
  • The works of Geoffrey Chaucer, now newly imprinted by Kelmscott Press (2022-0002F) — Sidney’s favorite favorite book; the topic of a Society meeting. This is the famous “Kelmscott Press” copy of Chaucer, complete with beautiful woodcuts designed by William Morris.
  • The Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens (2009-0477N— Amelia’s favorite; it lifts her spirits during the Occupation.
  • Selected letters of Charles Lamb, chosen and edited by G.T. Clapton, M.A. (PR4863 .A23 1925) — Juliet sends a copy of Lamb’s writing to Dawsey.
  • Poems by Wilfred Owen (20th-306 RHT— Owen’s poetry helps Clovis Fossey to describe his experiences in WWI.
  • Poems from the Book of Hours: “Das Stundenbuch” by Rainer Maria Rilke (2004-1635N) — In German and English. A gift from Christian to Elizabeth, with the inscription, “For Elizabeth, who turns darkness into light.”
  • Seneca’s Morals by Way of Abstract by Sir Roger L’Estrange. (2006-0954N) — John Booker writes that Seneca and the Society keep him from being a drunk.
  • The Beauties of Shakespeare: Selected from his Plays and Poems (PR2768 .K45 1783— Eben Ramsey’s favorite book. He quotes Shakespeare when talking about the German troops landing on Guernsey.
  • Ballade de la Geôle de Reading by Oscar Wilde (3989.5.314.11) — It is discovered that Wilde wrote to Isola’s grandmother with tales of her cat’s new life. Contains an inscription to close friend Ada Leverson: “To the Sphynx of pleasure from the Singer of Pain. Oscar Wilde.”

In April, the group takes on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night.

For more information and event registration, please see the Princeton Public Library website. For more information about seeing these items for yourself, check out the access services page of the Special Collections website.